It has been some time since the arrival of Valve’s Steam Controller. It was their solution to the tricky question - ‘Do want to use a keyboard and mouse or a controller?’ Their answer - ‘Why not both?’ By combining both these aspects Valve, after many design iterations, have crafted a versatile, customisable controller. But is it any good? Does it do justice in replacing your standard PC pad, and does it go beyond and become the keyboard and mouse replacement? Well, I’ve been using the Steam Controller for the past couple of months and even now, I’m still trying to get to my head around it. I’ve done my research and have tested many genres of games so here’s my review of Valve’s Steam Controller.
To start, for those who don’t know, the Steam Controller is Valve’s very own designed controller. It has a very unusual design; it’s unlike any other controller on the market, with two large trackpads on either side alongside two-stage triggers and extra grip buttons on the back. It isn’t a simple copy of the Xbox or PlayStation controller. In fact, the only thing even resembling another controller is its awkwardly placed single left analogue stick and A,B,X,Y face buttons. It’s been built around Valve’s design philosophy; which is to offer the accuracy of a mouse and customisation of a keyboard into a controller. It sounds great on paper, in practice it involves a lot more tinkering.
The packaging is pretty nice. Coming in a minimalistic cardboard box with the steam logo in the corner, and a sleeve cover over showing a clear image of the controller and specifications on the side. Everything is nicely presented and upon opening the box, you’ll see the controller itself staring back at you, underneath you’ll find a set of AA batteries, USB pairing dongle with dock and a micro-usb lead for said dock. Overall, some lovely packaging and it would pain me to throw away, unlike the terrible plastic packaging found on the PlayStation 4 controller.
Grasping the Steam Controller for the first time feels alien. It’s not because of its size, in fact, it held in the palms of my hands quite comfortable, although for those with smaller hands may struggle to get to grips with it. At its full price of £39.99 it’s on par with other controllers, the build-quality is nothing amazing, being made entirely of plastic with a matte and gloss finish, but it’s sturdy and doesn’t feel like it’ll fall apart. The only criticism for the design I can give is that the back buttons, which also act as the battery cover, feels flimsy. With that said, it’s time to delve into the performance of the controller itself and the reason why it gives your muscle memory of any other controller a big middle finger.
I won’t be comparing the Steam Controller with every controller at hand, that’ll be madness and will take too long, instead the biggest comparison drawn from here will be how it handles compared to the current controller tyrants for: Xbox 360, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. As someone who’s played with controllers for many years, I’ve never had trouble getting to grips with the controller of choice. It was only when I first picked up the Steam Controller that things changed and to start they weren’t for the better.
With the batteries inserted behind the back buttons and the USB dongle plugged in I hit the center button instantly launching into Steam’s Big Picture Mode. Heading to my library, I first took a gander over my controller supported titles. Of course, the controller does support non-controller games, but to begin I thought it would be best to start with the native controller games, before delve into other. The titles I tried were: Rocket League, DOOM, Dark Souls III, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and The Witcher 3. By using the default profiles for each game, you’d expect it to act like a normal controller, but the Steam Controller is a peculiar device. Instead of using the layout of a 360 controller the developer/default profiles combines keyboard, mouse and controller inputs.
Starting with the first person shooters, both Call of Duty and DOOM were configured so that the right trackpad was the mouse, triggers: left and right click, the analogue stick acted as W,A,S,D and the face buttons set the same as the 360 controller. Call of Duty, though didn’t treat it as a controller, so navigation the menus etc, had to be done with the trackpad as a mouse and right trigger for left click. DOOM was easier as it supports the automatic switch between controller and kb/m, so pressing A to confirm converted things into a controller layout and so forth.
This was similar to the other titles as well. The Witcher 3 and Dark Souls III being primarily controller focused games worked surprisingly well, and felt the closest to 360 controls. Dark Souls III’s profile even had useful on-screen shortcuts, something you won’t find on another controller. By far the easiest to control was Rocket League, although it does have the simplest layout and doesn’t require you to use the trackpads.
The non-controller titles I tried were Cities: Skylines and X-COM 2. Both with specific layouts for the Steam Controller. In practice, they surprisingly accommodated the kb/m controls onto the controller well. Since they don’t require twitch precision in mouse movement, you can plot out your next big city and place down homes or move your squad and target invading aliens with ease.
So after sometime the biggest struggle was first person shooters, and much as the right trackpad offers more control, it won’t be replacing your mouse anytime soon. Strategy titles, Third person or racing titles which use the right trackpad as the camera were easier to play with. But as an overall experience the Steam Controller profiles form a bizarre combination of controller, keyboard and mouse and can be bothersome to get used to. This is very much the opposite of its Xbox and PlayStation controller counterparts who offer a more pick up and play feel. Although this was before I delved into configurations and the other profiles, fortunately once I did venture into the robust configuration tools and profile options, I started to realise how intutive the controller can really get.
Configuring a controller or even keyboard and mouse for games isn’t anything new. And for those who use a controller for the PC may have had experience with software that allows configuration for non-controller supported games. The Steam Controller uses the same concept and expands upon it and alongside the power of the Steam community and some extensive options you can either find or create your perfect profile for each of your games. The only drawback is whether you wish to spend the time.
Launching into the settings you can browse the configs. The community has been strong and many popular titles has a long-list of user created profiles. You can see the descriptions and the number of users using the profile. From here you can go nuts and find the right profile for you. Of course, this doesn’t stop you from making your own or modifying someone else’s to something more of your liking but when you do it’s all trial and error. Valve have been thorough with their customisation, each individual part of the controller can be modified and beyond with options to set multiple actions for the controller. Each button, trackpad and triggers can be modified to whatever input you’d like.
The left trackpad has direction grooves, so if you wish you can set these as direction arrows, acting like a D-pad or if you wish, set them as your hotkeys. The right trackpad is primarily your mouse, but it can be set to act as a joystick or mouse-like joystick - which is Valve’s answer to having the best of both, these can be then fine tuned with options for haptic feedback, rotation (horizontal tweaking), sensitivity as well as spin radius and speed. Both trackpads also support click-in function as well just like an analogue stick on a Xbox controller. Going even further, the dual switch triggers allow you to perform two actions depending if you pull the trigger softly or hard, and the back buttons can be setup so that you’ll have no need to take your thumbs off the trackpads. In addition, the controller also supports gyro so you can add further fine tuning to your camera movement. Even with all this it still goes deeper. You can create a Mode Shift which allows you to add two functions with a press of a button. An example would be setting a pull on the left trigger to bring up a touch menu with the trackpad.
With all that said above, it couldn’t be more confusing to begin with and this is why it’s trial and error. Each game controls differently and there is no one profile for all. Once you get a hang of things though, you’ll be modifying, experimenting in no time. Although overall, it does beg the question: Should the Steam Controller be your next PC controller? Well, yes and no. I jumped in and got it at a discount. When using the controller it wasn’t a struggle, but certainly takes getting used to. So frequently I’d find myself just going back to the keyboard and mouse. Even after spending time customising, tweaking and testing I just got tired of it. Nevertheless that’s my opinion. As a whole, the Steam Controller is designed for those who want more from their controller, if you are someone who enjoys customisation and similarly to modders, spend more time modding than playing, then the Steam Controller is a great alternative to the Xbox and PlayStation controllers.
The main issue is that it isn’t very welcoming, especially for newcomers to PC gaming, but for all who wish to carry over the precision and capabilities of the keyboard and mouse to a controller for use with their comfy couch and big TV you won’t find another controller like it. Valve is continuously going through community feedback, looking to further improve the controller. However, if you’re not willing to delve into the community side yourself and customise then you’re better off just sticking with the Xbox/PlayStation controller.
The Steam Controller Review
The Steam Controller is designed for those who want more from their controller. The main issue is that it isn’t very welcoming, but if wish to carry over the precision and capabilities of the keyboard and mouse to a controller for use with their comfy couch and big TV you won’t find another controller like it. But if you’re not willing to delve into the community and customise then you’re better off just sticking with the Xbox/PlayStation controller.